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Fact Check: Are South Africans the 8th highest sugar consumers in the world?

The South African government has decided to tax sugar-sweetened drinks to bring down the number of such drinks South Africans buy. The tax involves an extra charge of 2.29 cents per gramme of sugar in every sugar-sweetened drink (which includes soft drinks, sugar-sweetened fruit drinks, sports and energy drinks, vitamin water drinks, sweetened iced teas and lemonades), as we explained in a previous report. Those for and against the tax have been vocal. A Bhekisisa article recently quoted the director of the Priceless health think-tank at the University of the Witwatersrand as saying a sugar tax “is one of the best things that you can do as part of a series of steps to deal with obesity”.

Professor Karen Hofman added: “South Africans are the 8th highest sugar consumers globally. Such a tax will cut the consumption of sugary drinks, just as regulation cut tobacco use.”

Is her claim about South Africans’ sugar consumption supported by available data?

Claim from a report on sugar markets

Hofman pointed Africa Check to an overview report published in 2011 by the Center for Agricultural Policy and Trade Studies at North Dakota State University in the US as the source of her claim.

It contains a table listing the sugar production and per capita consumption, among other statistics, of a number of countries and world regions. With sugar consumption of 36 kg per person per year, South Africa is 8th on this list.

The data in the report comes from a US department of agriculture database. An analyst at the department, Reed Blauer, said their figures are based on industry data. Starting with the amount of sugar each country begins a year with, they add new sugar produced and whatever sugar is imported. From this, they subtract the sugar exported and whatever stocks are left on factory floors to determine a “domestic consumption” figure.

North Dakota State University research scientist and report author, Richard Taylor, told Africa Check that they calculate per capita consumption using population data from Economic Insight, an economics consultancy.

Report does not rank worldwide sugar consumption

However, the North Dakota State University report is not an accurate ranking of sugar consumption per person around the globe, senior economist Sergey Gudoshnikov at the International Sugar Organisation pointed out to Africa Check.

That is because the table is not a world ranking, but rather presents consumption levels of a select number of countries. Further, countries in the European Union are grouped together, with an unknown number of countries in the “rest of the world” category.

The International Sugar Organisation (ISO) is a forum that represents the the bulk of sugar producing countries worldwide. Gudoshnikov said about 50 member countries provide official reports – in the case of South Africa, by the South African Sugar Association – but for the rest, the ISO estimates their production and consumption.

Gudoshnikov added that the ISO’s data, contained in their 2016 Sugar Year Book that one has to pay for, shows that South Africa ranks in the “middle of the world table” (between 50th and 60th) for sugar intake per person. This is listed at 34.1 kg per head per year.

Malaysia, Brazil and Cuba top the ISO’s list for 2015.

However, Blauer and Gudoshnikov both said that the way in which their organisations calculate sugar consumption does not necessarily represent the amount of sugar consumers’ put in their mouths.

Gudoshnikov told Africa Check that some researchers “believe that ‘real’ intake is considerably smaller” than the ISO’s statistics, but that “there is no consensus here on whether we are talking about 1%, 5%, 10%, 20% or 40%”.

What do we know about South Africans’ sweet tooth?

Health policy economist Dr Evan Blecher told Africa Check data from the US department of agriculture on sugar supply is probably as good as it gets.

“There are not many other and better sources, since surveillance instruments are slow at catching up in this space,” Blecher told Africa Check. He added that nutritional surveys are needed to “to crack consumption patterns of consumers” but that there are not many of these available.

For example, South Africa’s major nutritional survey, the 2012 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, scored individuals’ sugar intake as low, moderate or high but did not estimate how much sugar they consumed in total.

Sugar in packaged food & soft drinks

Organisations that track the supply side of sugar, such as the International Sugar Organisation and the US department of agriculture, do not factor in the sugar content of imported products.

An indication of sugar intake from packaged food and soft drinks is supplied by Euromonitor International, a global market research company. The company analyses the nutrient profiles of 75,000 food and drink brands in 54 countries worldwide, including sugar and fat.

Coupled with sales data, Euromonitor calculates average consumption per person in each of the 54 countries, a public sector advisor at Euromonitor, Ruth Bysshe, told Africa Check.

Bysshe said Euromonitor’s latest data shows that South Africans consume, on average, 47.5 g of sugar per person per day from the packaged food and soft drinks that the company monitors. This placed South Africa 32nd out of 54 countries.

Conclusion: Claim about South Africans’ sugar intake unlikely to be correct

The table on which a South African health researcher based her claim that South Africans’ sugar consumption is the 8th highest globally was not complete.

Data from the global sugar industry body suggests the country lies between 50th and 60th place. However, as this body tracks the production and trade in sugar, we cannot say for sure that it represents actual human intake.

One reason is that imported and exported sugar-containing products are not reflected in the data. A company that monitors the sale of packaged food and soft drinks told Africa Check that South Africans consume on average 47.5 g of sugar – or 180 calories – per person per day through the products they look at. (Note: The World Health Organisation recommends that sugar intake be less than 10% of someone’s total energy intake. In South Africa, that is 202 calories based on the recommended calorie intake for women and 250 calories for men.)

In the absence of nutritional surveys that are comparable across countries, we cannot say for sure where South Africans rank when it comes to sugar intake. However, the available data suggests it is much lower than 8th in the world.

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